Weekly Roundup, February 4, 2022

Can you see the problem with this plate? If you can, a factory in China would like to offer you a job as Quality Control Inspector. See last item, below.

 

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Good morning

I mention in Thursday’s Covid diary entry that the twice-weekly Covid articles are drawing to a close.  After two years and now 283 articles, it is time to move on (I hope!).  I have a final “grand summary” to offer next week, and then, assuming no major new developments, I plan to stopping doing this – it being something I never expected nor wanted to do.  Yesterday’s diary entry is attached, and Sunday’s can be seen online, here.

With travel issues stirring positively, I think I can start to fill your weekly reading with travel type stuff again without needing something else to make up any shortfall.  Plus, I am looking at something different entirely, and if this is of interest, I’d appreciate your inputs and thoughts and acting as a sounding board.

Some of you know, either directly or obliquely, of my interest in classical music.  I’m planning for a new expression of this interest, through a somewhat new (to me) outlet.

If you have even a small interest in classical music too – it doesn’t need to be serious and you don’t need to play any instruments, the “I know the tunes I like but not their names” is absolutely sufficient – and if you’d be willing to help me by sharing your opinions, starting off with your thoughts on various possible names that I’m trying to choose between, please let me know, and I’ll tell you more about it.

Instead of writing a new article for you this week, I’ve revised and redone two articles I wrote almost a year ago.  The way the emailing works, I can’t now attach them to this newsletter, but you can see the first of them here – Should you repair or replace your car?  The second is linked from the first.

A year ago I was agonizing over whether I expensively repaired my aging Land Rover or replaced it.  I ended up writing two articles, thinking out loud, as it were, about the variety of issues and considerations surrounding such a decision, and ultimately decided to keep the car.  I’ve had it since new, buying it in December 2005, and have put 175k miles on it in the just over 16 years that followed.  It was – and still is – a lovely vehicle in every respect, lacking in nothing I needed or wanted in a car, and of course, with a tremendous ability to confidently and comfortably conquer any sort of weather and road surface it was confronted with.

But whereas a year ago, the repair shop owner (actually a woman, and an extremely competent one at that) was encouraging me to keep the car, last Friday she called me with a demeanor such as I imagine a doctor has when telling a patient about their terminal cancer.  She didn’t want to spend the $5,000+ it would cost to resolve the car’s latest challenge, and I find myself now wondering if I made the right decision a year ago.  Well, actually, when I look at the thick stack of repair bills and five figure cost of keeping the car on the road over the last twelve months, I don’t wonder at all.  But I really will miss the car and am loathe to part with it.

There’s another reason for wanting to avoid replacing the car as long as possible.  My sense is that we’re on a cusp of exciting breakthroughs in new car technologies in terms of battery power and automated driving capabilities.  On the cusp of, but not actually there yet, but when it happens, there’ll be rippling effects through used car pricing in response to the massively improved capabilities and economies of the new generation of electric cars.  Now is far from an ideal time to invest in a new car, and with greatly inflated prices for used cars at present due to shortages of everything, not a very good time to buy a used car either.

I hope you are spared the need to confront that issue, yourself, but if it is a matter that is slowly surfacing in your world, too, I hope you’ll find the linked article and the second article which flows on from it to be of help.  The second article includes some bonus material for the very kind Travel Insider Supporters.

One more introductory comment.  Sunday is an extraordinary day for the United Kingdom and British Commonwealth.  It is the seventieth anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s ascending to the throne – her Platinum jubilee.

What an extraordinary 70 years they have been, as this article lightly commemorates.  The word “extraordinary” is sadly but necessarily a more neutral term than others which one may wish to have been able to use, but the Queen herself continues to show herself to have the uncompromisingly highest of standards and conduct and is a world leader of gravitas and probity without equal.

Non-Brits will probably never adequately comprehend the role of the Queen in their society, and I’ll include myself, as a distant Antipodean, in that exclusion.  Even most born and bred Brits probably don’t understand exactly how much “power” she has and uses, and what her influence on the ephemeral series of governments and Prime Ministers she has seen come and go may be, and the mystery of what she actually “does” other than wear fancy uniforms and crowns and regalia, and ceremonially open a bewildering array of buildings and other structures remains for us all to speculate on.

Some people like to spread lies about the cost of supporting the monarchy to the British government and its tax-paying people, but any dispassionate assessment of the totality of pluses and minuses shows the Queen and her Royal Family to be an enormous financial asset to the country as a whole.

The annual grant she receives is public knowledge, and is laughably small – a single Presidential international visit probably costs as much as the entirety of the British Royal Family’s annual grant from the UK government.  Even the official “Sovereign Grant” isn’t a free gift from the government, it is the result of an agreement where the Royal Family passed ownership of lands they had to the government, in return for which they would receive this annual stipend.  And then there’s the other side of the equation – the taxes they voluntarily pay, the millions they spend on employing staff, the work they do for the nation in promoting trade and its international image, and of course, the tourism value from the millions of people who are drawn to the UK each year in some measurable part to see some of the pomp and circumstance of Britain’s heraldry and history, as expressed in the Royal Family, their residences, their possessions, and themselves.

What else?  Please continue for :

  • US Air Passenger Numbers
  • International Travel Update
  • Are We Happy With US Airports/Airlines and Their Response to Bad Weather?
  • You Might Pay $50 More For Your Bag on a Frontier Flight, But USA Today Says the Fees Aren’t Rising
  • Allegiant Growing
  • FAA Comes Up with a New Buzzword for Remedial Pilot Training
  • Teslas Were Programmed to Break the Law
  • GM – The Promise vs The Reality
  • Fancy Phones and Fast Internet
  • Amazon Prime – Still a Bargain, Even at its New Price
  • And Lastly This Week….

US Air Passenger Numbers

It was a good week for air travel.  Well, okay, you might wonder how I could possibly say that in light of the terrible weekend storm and chaotic cancellations, but as you can see from the chart, numbers were generally strong and the net effect of the last seven days has been a rise in the seven day rolling average.

International Travel Update

As I mentioned in yesterday’s Covid diary update, the world is casting off its controls and opening up again.  Here’s another article about European relaxations.  That is even hinted at by the rise in US air passenger numbers, shown directly above.

Some countries are proceeding at a more deliberate pace, however.  I was surprised to see my fellow New Zealanders have delayed their earlier gradual re-opening, and now won’t be re-opening to all visitors until October.

From a time vaguely referred to as “July 2022” (a contrast to other steps in the reopening that have both an exact date and also minute for when they come into effect) most people from most countries will be able to visit, but will be required to self-isolate for ten days upon arrival.  I’m going to hazard a guess that few tourists would enjoy spending the first ten days in a hotel room, not leaving it for any purpose at all.

Everyone will be allowed to resume visiting from October (again, a vague reference to the month only) and there is no indication if the ten day self-isolation/quarantine requirement will remain.  Here is the official NZ Government page.  I’d love to offer one of the very popular NZ Spring tours I’ve held in past years – they run in late October/early November to coincide with a wonderful wine and food festival, but I need to find out about the self-isolation, and of course, am slightly anxious as to if the schedule might slip yet again.

In general, and of course, totally depending on the vagaries of the virus and national responses to it, I’m feeling more positive and comfortable about international travel than at any earlier time in the last two years, with the main remaining concern being countries that might require visitors to have a booster vaccine shot as well as the original one or two shots.  Maybe it is time to think of some spring/early summer Travel Insider touring?  Where would you like to go?

Are We Happy With US Airports/Airlines and Their Response to Bad Weather?

The airlines cancelled over 3,500 flights due to last weekend’s mainly east coast winter storm.  I’ll agree the weather was notably bad, and worse than a typical winter storm.

But I also note that some airports closed entirely, “out of an abundance of caution” rather than attempt any sort of operations during the storm’s peak.  Similarly, some airlines cancelled flights “just in case” of problems – and to avoid any semblance of liability for stranded passengers.  It doesn’t appear as dramatic on television news to say “people are in hotels and at their homes” as it does to show the typical picture of passengers sleeping on hard airport floors.

Some people have non-discretionary travel needs.  They have an absolute requirement to be somewhere, and can only make that journey by air, and/or can’t reschedule to swap a half day flight for three or four days of driving, or whatever other approach to travel could get them where they need to be.  Maybe there are happy events, like weddings, or unhappy events like severe illnesses, last days, and funerals.  Maybe there are critical maintenance needs that require spare parts and technical experts to address an outage impacting on many people’s lives.  And so on, through a lengthy list of scenarios where air travel isn’t a deferrable luxury, but a time-critical necessity.

Do our airports and airlines really try their hardest when bad weather hits?  What level of preparedness is fair to expect?  Should our aviation industry be able to take a once a year worst weather event in its stride?  How about a once every five years event?  A once every ten years event?  Somewhere on that continuum between “giving up if the sun goes behind a cloud” and “spending unlimited amounts of money on emergency resources that are never needed” is a fair compromise point.

I’m not presuming to say where that fair balance is, but I would suggest that when weather conditions get bad, a total capitulation is not the most appropriate response.  Maybe airports should be allowed to add an extra $1 per passenger per flight surcharge for “emergency preparedness” costs to make their service more robust and reliable?  Or maybe it should just be mandated as part of an operating license for both airports and airlines that they have the equipment and resources to handle events all the way up to a “one in every (how many?) years” type of severe occurrence?

Much of Europe has much harsher weather than we do, but responds to such challenges calmly and with fewer disruptions.  I say this merely to point out that “extremely bad weather” is not a problem to which we can not respond.  It is rather a problem that our airports and airlines are choosing not to respond to – it being cheaper (for them) that way.

Here’s an example of a plane battling the weather when coming in to land at Heathrow.  I’m not sure if our US airlines would be willing to do that.  On the other hand, here’s a Chinese plane having some “fun” at O’Hare…..  Expect the repair costs to be in eight figures…..

You Might Pay $50 More For Your Bag on a Frontier Flight, But USA Today Says the Fees Aren’t Rising

Frontier is reducing the standard weight limit per checked bag from 50lbs to 40lbs.  Now you’ll pay a $50 overweight fee if your bag is 40 – 50lbs, and a $100 overweight fee (up from $75 before) if your bag is 50 – 100lbs.

But this USA Today article says this isn’t an increase in fees.  That’s really strange arithmetic, and while they tell us what it isn’t, they don’t come up with a word to tell us what it is.

The article goes on to tell us we’ll have to control our overpacking to avoid the (new $50 fee that isn’t an increase in fees).  What planet do USA Today writers live on?  A 50lb bag is nowhere near overpacked – but their too-young journalists probably don’t remember back to when the standard free weight per bag was 70lbs, and many of us needed all of those pounds, and sometimes needed two or even three of those bags full (as was possible, when we could travel with two and sometimes three suitcases, all for free).

Keep in mind that an empty suitcase weights close on 15lbs.  So the weight for contents was only 35lbs for a 50lb total weight, and now is down to only 25lbs for a 40lb total weight.  A good winter coat, a pair of boots, the usual miscellany of “stuff”, and you’re quickly past 25lbs of contents, and nowhere near overpacking.

Why does USA Today have to snidely suggest it is our fault that this (not a) fee increase might add another $50 or more to our each way travel costs?

In other news, Delta is reportedly trialing a “check your carry-on bag for free” program at BOS during February.  That’s about as sure a sign as anything that the airlines are returning back to very high load factors on flights, and the usual struggle to fit all carry-on bags into the passenger compartment is becoming a thing again.

The problem with “check your carry-on bag for free” is of course the opposing advice, from the airlines themselves – never check anything fragile or valuable or which you can’t live without.  Gosh – my computer scores highly on all three of those points!

When it comes to bag fees, I should mention Southwest Airlines.  It continues to (perhaps reluctantly) allow all passengers to travel with two free bags.  Each can weigh up to 50lbs.

Allegiant Growing

Perhaps I should also mention Spirit and Allegiant – two other airlines that also limit your bag allowance to 40lbs.  Oh – and also, please keep in mind, this is not a free first bag.  You’re already paying up to $50 to check that bag, but if it is over 40lbs, you pay a further $50 for the next 10lbs (and then more again if it is over 50lbs).

I’ve never flown on a Spirit or Allegiant flight, and while I’ve flown on Frontier before, that was with earlier airlines of the same name, not the current version.  But all three airlines seem to be growing in size and network, and if you’ve been like me and avoiding them, perhaps it is time to revisit that aversion.

This week Allegiant announced it was adding nine new routes, and service growth in other markets too.  It is always great to see competition, although it would be greater still if the competition wasn’t so rapacious at adding obscured fees, to distort the impression given by their sometimes seemingly attractive low fares, prior to fees and fine-print “gotcha” charges.

Talking about competition, we how have two new European airlines planning on starting service to the US this summer.  Yay for that.

FAA Comes Up with a New Buzzword for Remedial Pilot Training

One of the interesting “confessions” from pilots over the last year or so has been the suggestion that if they’re not flying a lot, then they’re forgetting a lot.  Pilots have been excusing appalling mistakes as arising from not having done enough flying.  On the face of it, maybe there’s some fairness in that statement, but the FAA and airlines already recognize that with a requirement to remain “current” with a minimum amount of flying every quarter in order to remain in operational status.  If they’ve not done that minimum time, they have to catch up before they are allowed back into a cockpit (other than as a passenger!).

But perhaps the pilots have a deeper point they haven’t actually thought about themselves.  With the ability to fly a modern plane without touching the basic flight controls between when pushing back from one gate at the departure airport to when stopping at the gate at the arrival airport, what actually does “being current” signify these days?

It is true some pilots enjoy having their hands on the controls and doing a bit of “old-fashioned flying”, and some pilots claim they can fly the plane better than the autopilot, but other pilots simply program the flight path and confine their actions to changing the programming based on ATC instructions.

The FAA, a mere three years after the two 737 MAX crashes occurred, is now wondering if there shouldn’t be some changes in pilot training, to bring about more competence in “flightpath management”.  That sounds like a delightfully politically term which actually means “not crashing”.

The FAA is keen that pilots should be aware of what is happening to their plane during a flight – a concept which seems to imply an acceptance that the pilots are just watching, rather than directly controlling the plane.

Is this a real change or merely a series of politically correct CYA type statements?  The problem is that it is very hard to remain aware of everything with a plane’s operations, when it is fully automatic.  But it should be easy enough to be aware during the critical first few and last few minutes (when a pilot has neither altitude nor energy to spare if things go wrong).  Could the FAA and pilots focus on those critical parts?

Additionally, the problem is actually more fundamental and critical.  It isn’t merely being aware, but knowing what to do if an issue develops – and sadly, that’s a problem that can happen at any stage of flight, not just in the critical first and last few minutes.  Many of the crashes in recent years have been due to pilots showing themselves astonishingly unable to perform simple flight recovery maneuvers such as are taught near the beginning of flight training to all student pilots.

Is the problem pilot training, per se?  Or somehow maintaining pilot competence in the years subsequently?  Should there be more than perfunctory staged refreshers in flight simulators?  I’ve lots of questions, and the only thing I’m sure about is the pilots who are earning six figure sums (with the first number being a “2” not a “1”) for their part-time flying (typically no more than about 80 hours a month of actual flying time) are not performing at the level we’d all hope for and expect from such generous payments (and benefits…..).

Teslas Were Programmed to Break the Law

Talking about maintaining awareness, attention, and skill, it is easy to switch to thinking of the concept of fully self-driving cars, a nirvana that we’re taking longer to attain than had been promised in the bold years of the first half of the 2010s.

This week saw the surprising admission by Elon Musk that the Tesla cars, when in “full self-driving” mode, had a setting that would cause them to deliberately roll through a stop sign if the car deemed it to be safe.  There is some dispute as to if the “California stop” would be at 2mph or 5.6mph (a fancy way of saying 9 km/hr), but whichever it was, it would be enough to excite any nearby law enforcers and cause them to issue you some expensive paperwork.  “But it wasn’t my fault, officer….” – any police officer has heard that a thousand times before.  But continuing on to say “…. the car did it automatically, not me – ticket the car or Tesla or Elon Musk” – well, I’d be curious to see how successful a plea that might be.  See here and here.

Maybe that’s why President Biden hates Tesla so much he pretends they don’t even exist?  Or perhaps he just keeps forgetting?

GM – The Promise vs The Reality

GM says it plans to deliver 400k new electric vehicles, into the US market alone, this year and next, and one million or more by 2025.  Great, the more the merrier.  They also proudly talk about their new entry-level EV, the Chevy Equinox, but not due out until fall of 2023, so unlikely to have much impact on the 2023 target number, and perhaps unlikely to have much impact at all, because its price is guessed at being about the same as the current Chevy Bolt.

One point to note, however, which places these exciting plans into perspective.  26.  What is the significance of that number, you ask?  26?

Ummm, that is the total count of all electric vehicles that GM sold in the US in the entirety of the fourth quarter last year.  So they’ve a way to go.  Yet again, that sound you hear in the background is Elon Musk laughing.

Fancy Phones and Fast Internet

Can I mention, one more time, how much I like my Google Pixel 4a 5G phone.  While it is no longer a current model, it still feels like new to me, and has every imaginable feature and capability I need.

Now that I’ve said that, can I very slightly contradict myself and say that I do also very much admire the newest Pixel 6 phones.  They are even more impressive than the 4a 5G, but cost a great deal more, and with the 4a 5G, there are not enough reasons to upgrade the phone.  If I had an earlier generation, the new Pixel phones would be mighty tempting.

Google has always had a really strange approach to selling its great phones – it hardly promotes them at all, and seldom makes enough quantities to be able to aggressively push the phones out to consumers the way Apple and Samsung do.  But maybe they’re slowly getting better – this article suggests that, supply shortages notwithstanding, they’ve just had the best sales quarter ever.  A Pixel phone and Google’s Fi mobile phone service make for a brilliant pairing for most people and most use cases.

Another of my favorite new products, which I currently have no need for, is Elon Musk’s wonderful new Starlink satellite internet service.  For sure, if I were somewhere that didn’t have ridiculously fast and equally ridiculously low-priced fiber, I’d be eagerly signing up for Starlink’s 100+ Mbps service and feeling the $100/month cost of that to be a bargain.

Starlink has now come out with a higher level of service, with a rather vague offering of speeds between 150-500 Mbps.  That’s a huge range of possible values, and one wonders why they’re not being slightly more accurate – probably it is due to their constellation of satellites still being far from full, although they deployed another 49 earlier this week.

And the cost for the something less than 500 Mbps service?  A bit more than the $40/month I pay for my 500 Mbps fiber.  A rather severe $500/month.  Fortunately, for most of us, their regular 100 Mbps/$100 service is more than sufficient for just about everything.  Here’s an article I wrote back in 2019 that – surprisingly – remains essentially unchanged now, in terms of how fast an internet speed do you really need.

Amazon Prime – Still a Bargain, Even at its New Price

Amazon doubled its profits to $14.3 billion in the last quarter of 2021.  To celebrate, it is increasing the price of Prime membership, from $119/year, to $139/year.  That’s an appreciable sum, but for many of us, there are plenty of reasons to continue paying it, and indeed, the fast/free delivery is no longer the key benefit in many cases.  There’s also the large selection (over two million tracks) of free music, a free Kindle book every month, other books available for free Prime Reading, discounts on some grocery items at Whole Foods, early access to some of their sales, discounts meds, a 5% discount on everything at Whole Foods and Amazon if you get the Prime Rewards Visa Card, some sort of free gaming, and, perhaps the best of all, Prime Video Streaming.

The video streaming alone, if matched alongside the Netflix program and price, more than justifies a Prime membership.  If you don’t already have a Prime membership, you can still join at the old rate until 18 February, getting your first year at the earlier $119 rate.

And Lastly This Week….

Do you know how much of the $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill will actually be spent on adding new roads and bridges?  Not a single penny.

That might be okay if the money was all going to build high speed rail services.  But that seems likely to be about as well funded as the new roads and bridges (the money is being spent on “climate change” and lofty goals such as to “reconnect communities and reflect the inclusion of disadvantaged and under-represented groups in the planning, project selection and design projects”).

Talking about high speed rail services, the country with the most high speed rail track recently added another line, featuring the world’s deepest railway station (335 ft down), and with the world’s first fully automated high speed trains.  They’ll travel at speeds of up to 217 mph, reducing the earlier journey time of 3 hours to a new time of 56 minutes.

But, hey – it’s not all bad.  Amtrak just received four new carriages, as the first step in a $7.3 billion modernization plan.

Transitioning from the ridiculous to the sublime, here are some train journeys and carriages to dream about and lust over.

Which makes me think of some sort-of good news about the lovely old Queen Mary.  The Long Beach City Council has agreed to spend $5 million on some urgently needed repairs to the 88 year old ship (launched in 1934).  But the $5 million is merely a drop in the bucket of the repairs needed – $50 million could be quickly swallowed up.  Indeed, this article reports that the superstructure has become so weak that it can no longer support the weight of its lifeboats.

I’ve an idea for Jeff Bezos.  Instead of building a new $540 million super-yacht so huge that a historic bridge has to be taken apart for the yacht to get from the builder’s yard to the sea, why not just buy the Queen Mary?  He could probably afford the fuel bill if he was to take it out for a ride – it measures its fuel consumption not in miles per gallon, but in tons (of fuel) per mile.  A bit over one ton/mile – about one gallon every 20 feet.

Did you hear about the 747 that was sold for only £1, albeit, unsurprisingly, in an as-is, where-is condition.  Happily, the where-is issue wasn’t a problem for the airfield that now owns it.  However, some money has now been spent to redo the interior, making it into an “events space”.  A party plane, in other words.  You could enjoy it for a mere $1,300 per hour.  Oh, and expect some inconvenience if you need to use the conveniences on board.  The new owners claim the airplane toilets don’t work on the ground, only in the air (and the plane is unflyable).  That is of course a nonsense claim – chances are you may have used a 747 or other airplane toilet on the ground before now, so you’ll know that, too.  But they can be troublesome and probably the new owners wish to create a simpler system for their $1300/hour guests.

A similar swap between ridiculous and sublime (you decide which is which) – perhaps this would make a good replacement for my Land Rover?

Truly lastly this week, and thinking back to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, some commemorative items have of course been made to be sold as souvenirs, including the usual plates and mugs and so on.  Alas, even though Britain makes excellent crockery and porcelain itself, these tourist souvenirs have been mass product to a budget, which of course inevitably means China, doesn’t it.  There’s only one slight problem with 10,800 of the pieces – the Chinese Quality Control (an oxymoron) failed to note a slight spelling error.  See the picture at the top of the newsletter.

Until next week, please enjoy safe travels

 

David.

 

 

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